Who’s Really Pursuing the Alternative Career in Science?

These days it’s hard to escape the “alternative” label – alternative energy, alternative lifestyles, alternative medicine, alternative music, and of course, alternative careers. Prefacing a term with “alternative” implies those who find themselves in the “alternative” category have somehow strayed from the “normal” or “accepted” track. Nowhere is this stigma felt more than in science, where for decades researchers have been trained to pursue the “traditional” career path (aka, academics) or else risk finding themselves floating in the middle of the amorphous “alternative” pool (aka, all other careers). But does this perception accurately reflect today’s reality?

Recent findings by Henry Sauermann and Michael Roach suggest that while nearly 50% of life scientists and physicists regard an academic position as one of the most desirable career paths, the reality is that there aren’t enough academic job openings to fulfill the demand. As a result, many scientists end up working outside of the academic environment regardless of their initial career aspirations.

Although Sauermann and Roach find that many students feel their advisors preferentially support the academic path, departments on the leading edge of graduate education are beginning to offer support to students who will ultimately pursue a non-academic career. In many cases, this will be a majority of the class.

Given the realization that academic jobs are limited and a majority of students will find jobs outside of the university, does it make sense to refer to non-academic jobs as “alternative”? While some may argue it’s semantics and is splitting hairs, we feel it’s more than that. As our next generation of scientists contemplate a career in research, it’s only fair to help them understand where the career path leads. So if you were to describe what the “alternative career path” in science means, which profession do you feel most accurately fits the label?

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What do you consider the "alternative career" in science these days?

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Any suggestions for other terms we may use instead of “alternative”?

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4 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. @OmicsScience

    wrote on May 15, 2012 at 3:37 pm

    I do not consider any career as 'alternative'! All are Science Careers.. Maybe we could add this to the poll?

  2. [email protected]

    wrote on May 15, 2012 at 3:52 pm

    Great point! And yes, that probably should have been added to the poll. Unfortunately, we'll have to leave it out of this one because we don't like to add options after folks have started voting because it skews the data. But great topic for another poll — *is* there such thing as an alternative career?

  3. Lab Rat

    wrote on May 15, 2012 at 4:02 pm

    It always confused me why non-academic careers were seen as such a less desirable thing. Surely what you want is for industries to be employing highly trained and smart PhD students as a benefit to the company and for the economy in general. And surely what the student should want is the chance to explore science, but also decent pay and clear career advancement, which are more often found in industry and business.

    I do support the move to making a PhD student more aware and more prepared for a variety of career directions. It would also make students clearer on whether or not they need to do a PhD in order to take their career in the direction that they want to go.

  4. Chris B

    wrote on June 4, 2012 at 12:57 pm

    Non-research careers. And personally, I would prefer not using the word 'alternative' at all. There is a negative connotation attached to it regardless of which industry sector you are using it to refer to.

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